From Dhoni to the bold and brazen Virat Kohli, India’s troubled Test team has got the reboot it needed
Adelaide was where he arrived. Adelaide was where he stumbled at the doorstep of greatness. Those elusive 48 runs, as India lost narrowly on the fifth evening despite a century in each innings by their talismanic stand-in captain, will probably rankle all his life. But minutes after the long walk,Adelaide was where he arrived. Adelaide was where he stumbled at the doorstep of greatness. Those elusive 48 runs, as India lost narrowly on the fifth evening despite a century in each innings by their talismanic stand-in captain, will probably rankle all his life. But minutes after the long walk back, bearing the scars of a bloody battle on his psyche and with a funereal dressing room virtually in tears, Virat Kohli made a stirring speech. He had batted like a champion and he spoke like a leader, telling his teammates that they had two choices. They could either pat themselves on the back and claim moral victory for the stunning counterattack on Day 5 of the first Test, or they could try to decipher why they had choked at the finish line once again. It was clear that Kohli was egging them down the second, more uncomfortable, path.Nobody said a word, no one batted an eyelid. The team, the coaching staff, even captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who had sat out of the Test due to an injury, could see that the Crown Prince had signalled his eventual ascension to the throne. “His speech was even better than his batting that day,” one of the players told India Today. “He would have been the most heartbroken after his dismissal and the loss but he lifted the entire dressing room.”With Kohli, there was never a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when’. As Dhoni ended 2014 by announcing his retirement from Test cricket, the baton passed from Captain Cool to Captain Hothead. And, as if to signal their future intention in ODIs as well, the selectors called Kohli in Australia for his inputs on the 2015 World Cup team even though Dhoni and coach Duncan Fletcher had officially attendedthe selection meeting via video conference.advertisementKohli’s elevation promises to be a huge generational switch in Indian cricket, and he has already alerted his teammates about a major cultural change going forward. He’s told them that they will have to play and compete like the Aussies and win Test matches overseas. And he’s backed it up by dropping struggling regulars Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara from the fourth Test in Sydney, his first as India’s full-time Test captain.”This will be Kohli’s team,” said one of India’s most successful captains, Sourav Ganguly, from Sydney. “He will have to now rebuild his dressing room. I am a great fan of his batting and his approach towards the game, so I will be excited to see his transition from being a premium player to being a captain. India’s captaincy can soon turn one’s hair grey with pressure. If winning Tests is indeed his top priority, I am very happy.”There are several reasons why Kohli could prove to be an antidote for the withdrawal symptoms Indian fans have been suffering from ever since the Fab Four of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman called it a day. He is brash (West Indian Chris Gayle and Englishman Kevin Pietersen, after all, are among his best friends) and there has been virtually no session Down Under when he has not had a steaming run-in with an Australian opponent. He wears not just tattoos but also his heart on his sleeve. He has a celebrity girlfriend in actor Anushka Sharma. Yet the 26-year-old makes it a point to turn up on the ground in an old-school baggy blue cap in Tests, stressing that he does care for traditions.In his 33rd Test, Kohli may not have achieved greatness yet but seems to be galloping towards it. A slow starter in this format-he scored a mere 76 runs in his first five innings-Kohli has 10 centuries after the first innings of the fourth Test. That’s a rate of a hundred every 3.3 Tests, marginally behind Sunil Gavaskar’s at an equivalent stage in his career and far ahead of Tendulkar or Dravid. The first-innings century in Sydney also made him the first captain in history to score hundreds in his first three innings at the helm.That Kohli was destined for big things was apparent even before he had played his first Test. Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh had once told him, rather menacingly, on the tour of South Africa in 2010-11: “Agar tune Test cricket mein 10,000 run nahi banaye to phir dekhna (You had better score 10,000 Test runs and do justice to your talent)!”But things weren’t always smooth for him. Kohli first came to Raj Kumar’s West Delhi Coaching Academy as a chubby nine-year-old who was always up to mischief. He improved so dramatically over the next four years that he emerged as the highest run-getter in the Delhi Under-14 league. He was shocked, however, when he was left out of the Delhi state U-14 squad despite his performances. “He cried so much but instead of giving up, he worked doubly hard. When he played for Delhi U-17s two years later, he scored two double centuries,” says the proud Raj Kumar, a former Ranji player himself.advertisementAt 18, Kohli made his Ranji Trophy debut for Delhi in 2006. The first glimpse of his resolve came later in the season when he reached the ground to resume his innings against Karnataka despite his father’s death the previous day. He scored 90, saved the game for Delhi, and left the ground to attend the funeral with tears in his eyes.After leading the India U-19 team to the Youth World Cup win in Malaysia in 2008, Kohli was fast-tracked into international cricket by chief selector Dilip Vengsarkar as he began his ODI career for India in Sri Lanka as an opener-a position where he had never batted even in a club game.And then he went astray.There were concerns about his attitude and love for the high life as Bengaluru became his hub while playing for liquor baron Vijay Mallya’s glamorous Royal Challengers in the Indian Premier League. He lost his way, was dumped from the Indian team, and may have been written off as another promising player who could not live up to his tag. “He had gone off the rails, and my role changed from being his coach to his elder brother,” Raj Kumar confesses. “I would scold him. I had to almost stalk him, and keep asking him about practice. Down and out, he eventually realised that cricket was his only priority, and discipline and dedication were his best friends. Slowly, he found his rhythm and his motivation again.”Kohli became India’s main man in the one-day format soon after his return to the team, and once he scored his first Test century in Adelaide in 2012, Test cricket became a happy hunting ground as well. Apart from the blip in England last year, when he failed to score a half-century in 10 innings, Kohli has earned the tag of being among the most feared batsman in world cricket now.Former India captain Kapil Dev, among the first to spot Kohli when he was director of the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, feels the new Indian skipper has what it takes. “He is an intelligent cricketer. When he’s batting, it’s like he has a compass in his mind and a calculator in his pocket. His natural instinct is to attack, and I’m happy at how well he has recovered from that slump in England,” Dev says.Another of India’s successful captains, Mohammad Azharuddin, says having him at the helm will have a positive impact on the team. But he also has a few words of caution for Kohli: “One, he must mellow down his on-field aggression and avoid confrontation with rivals. Two, his batting could suffer if the team doesn’t do well as leadership can take a toll.”advertisementThe World Cup is Kohli’s next stop. He had scored a century in his debut World Cup game in 2011. After India won the Cup, the most memorable lines had come from him. “He has lifted the nation’s hopes for years,” he had said of Tendulkar, “it was time we lifted him on our shoulders”. In a world notorious for going full circle, India’s hopes rest squarely on Kohli’s shoulders now.Follow the writer on Twitter @vikarantgupta73To read more, get your copy of India Today here.